Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images
In 2003, after watching the first postmodern blood libel go viral, I coined the term Pallywood to describe the widespread use of staged scenes of Palestinians suffering violence supposedly at the hands of Israel, fabricated for global consumption. The term was decried as a “conspiracy theory,” and against all evidence, Israel was blamed for murdering 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durah. Twenty years later, we’re back where we started.
On Nov. 2, 2023, the “fact-checking website” (ostentatiously called Polygraph) of the government-funded Voice of America warned that “Israel supporters on X are using the derogatory label ‘Pallywood’ … to claim that Palestinians are staging scenes of death and violence using so-called crisis actors to elicit global sympathy and win the PR war with Israel.” These Israel supporters were “propaganda campaigners” spreading “disinformation,” the state media organ asserted.
The following day, the Anti-Defamation League joined in with a blog post (which it later stealthily deleted) titled, “ADL Debunk: Myths and False Narratives About the Israel-Hamas War.” The post tackled “a slew of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories about the ongoing conflict.” It listed a number of “false or misleading narratives,” which it proceeded to “debunk.” Only the ADL post didn’t debunk any one particular example of Pallywood. Rather, it declared that Pallywood—the notion that “Palestine is using elaborate filmmaking tactics to create fake victim footage”—as a whole was a “false narrative.” The post then explained what “reality” is: “The ‘Pallywood’ conspiracy theory has been around for years … There is ample evidence of Palestinian victims suffering in Gaza.”
On the same day, Rolling Stone published a long article, which consulted a “senior fact-checker,” and which affirmed the same talking points: The “derogatory” Pallywood term is an “old myth” that “Palestine’s opponents” are reviving “to discredit the suffering, grief, and pleas for help coming from Gaza.” Rolling Stone then added another important point explaining why the Pallywood “conspiracy theory” is especially “insidious.” It’s not only because it claims “falsely, that the Palestinians are faking it,” but also because it “dovetails with a rise in anti-Muslim hate speech.”
The new, remarkably uniform line of attack echoed an initiative the White House had just unveiled: the first-ever national strategy to counter Islamophobia in the United States. As antisemitic incidents spiked across American cities following Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, the Biden administration decided that an initiative to combat “the scourge of Islamophobia” was the nation’s most pressing priority.
With so much at stake, the danger posed by the conspiracy theory, that the Palestinians make visual productions for information warfare, had to be exposed and expunged. The Pallywood false narrative was a clear example of what the administration says are the two most egregious offenses against our democracy: “disinformation” and “hate speech,” namely against Muslims.
Against this background, one of the most vivid examples of the Pallywood genre during the current war in Gaza took place at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City the day before President Joe Biden landed in Israel.
At 6:59 p.m. on Oct. 17, a blast occurred in the parking lot of the Al-Ahli hospital. The crater it left was small and shallow, and the explosion that followed was a sudden fireball that left two fires burning in the parking lot. The hospital was undamaged, except for some broken windows on the blast side, and half a dozen cars were strewn around, badly burned.
Anyone who saw the crater knew right away that it was what observers call a “fell-short”: a Palestinian rocket that never made it to its target in Israel. It was a familiar sight, as 20%-30% of the rockets Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have fired into Israel in previous rounds of fighting have fallen short, according to the Israeli military. Sometimes, as in the Shati Refugee Camp tragedy of 2014, children are among the dead.
Moreover, the evidence apparently was cleared—“all traces of the munition have seemingly vanished from the site of the blast, making it impossible to assess its provenance,” The New York Times stated. The source of this information was a senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad. “The missile has dissolved like salt in the water,” Hamad told the NYT over the phone. “It’s vaporized. Nothing is left.” See how it works?
Hamas had a massive advantage in circulating the accusation that Israel struck a hospital killing hundreds, since there were few or no Western reporters in Gaza at that time. Virtually every journalist there was a local—resident stringers, photographers, and correspondents who supply the world, including Western news correspondents, with their news. Al Jazeera was the only international outlet to have reporters on the scene. The Qatari-owned channel played a key role in disseminating Hamas’ claims as issued through the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. A Gaza paramedic delivered the narrative on Al Jazeera English: “We have seen a massacre, a genocide for [sic] the people. They were sleeping only under the trees. No rooms, nothing, no shelters. They have bombed them by rockets. No one has [been] injured. All of them have been killed. This is a genocide.” The story exploded in the Arab world where the shocking news was greeted with fury and outrage at Israel’s genocidal war crime.
Hamas still had one problem: As soon as the evidence came out, its story would collapse. Therefore, within a limited window, it had to supply Western media with the semblance of evidence to get them to bite and run with the story, long enough for the Hamas version to take hold around the world. Once the story was out, Israel’s subsequent efforts to deny it would have no effect on those who already believed.
In order to do that, Hamas needed the proper footage to accompany the claims. That meant no photos of the site of the impact, no long shots that would reveal the absence of 500 corpses, and no shots of the largely intact hospital exterior. Instead, they needed short, jerky, close-ups of chaotic scenes and overworked medics in the dark, the removal of actual dead bodies, and a focus on wounded children. Since it was just nightfall, the site of the explosion would be shrouded in darkness for the next several hours. It was pure Pallywood: Provide a sketch and appeal to the imagination of the target audience to fill out the picture.
The ruse succeeded. Like stenographers, the Western media reported the Hamas version as the headline news item. CNN was all over the story. All through the night in Israel, the large CNN crew here—Anderson Cooper (Tel Aviv), Ben Wedeman (Lebanon), Nic Robertson (Tel Aviv), Jeremy Diamond (Tel Aviv), Clarissa Ward (near Gaza border), Erin Burnett (Tel Aviv), Sarah Sidner (Tel Aviv), Nada Bashir (Jordan)—discussed at length every aspect of the horrific story, both “what we know” happened, and, critically, its impact on President Biden’s diplomatic trip to the region.
The news of an Israeli strike drew condemnation the world over. Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia expressed outrage, while the famed “Arab street” raged. Western leaders also issued condemnations, with some urging respect for international law.
After evidence emerged showing that the cause of the explosion might not have been Israel, The New York Times headline and the CNN chyron were changed from “Israeli strike” or “strike” to “blast.” Even then, CNN reporters continued to repeat the Hamas version of a massive strike as news. Western journalists were primed to accept that an IDF strike deliberately targeted a hospital and obliterated it. That their information came from Hamas was hardly a problem.
Hence, the NYT was perfectly content to cite as its source a “spokeswoman for the Gazan health ministry, which is overseen by Hamas,” asserting “that the death toll was expected to rise as bodies were pulled from the rubble.” After quickly noting the highly dubious source, almost as a formality, journalists ran with the Hamas narrative. Not only did CNN repeatedly invoke the (false) Hamas claim, it adopted it as its own: “We expect there are many more innocent people still trapped under the rubble.” (Emphasis added.) All through the night, it ran the chyron: “Hundreds Believed Dead In Gaza Hospital Blast.” Aparently, they wanted it to be believed.
Importantly, and despite its implausibility, CNN kept repeating the Hamas-provided body count. The point was not only to amplify the emotional effect of hundreds of people seeking refuge at a safe location only to be tragically killed, but also to cast doubt on the Israeli claim. Such extensive damage could not have been caused by a Palestinian rocket that fell short, as Israel is saying.
The power of suggestion, which the Pallywood production is designed to enhance, can be seen in a comment by CNN’s Clarissa Ward early in the night on Oct. 17: “We don’t know exactly yet what caused the incident. It does appear to have been some kind of a massive strike, though, from preliminary videos that we are starting to look through.”
We do not know what preliminary videos CNN looked at (it would be a great service to publish the lot), but here is a medley of clips that either the CNN staff put together from their video feeds or they got ready-made from the stringers, and which they ran repeatedly as background to their commentary. Nothing in the clips offers evidence of a massive strike on a hospital that killed hundreds.
At 3:00 a.m. on Oct. 18, Anderson Cooper opened with a summary that accentuated gory visual evidence intended to emphasize the massive scale of the explosion:
It is 3 a.m. here in Israel, which is even at this late hour dealing with the repercussions of a human tragedy on a terrible, terrible scale, the massive explosion at a hospital in Gaza City. We should say at the outset, the pictures are as horrible as the incident itself. We want to show you new video just moments after the blast. Hundreds are believed dead. We’re talking about men, women, and children. Civilians. More may still be buried under the rubble.
“We cannot independently confirm how many people were killed in this blast,” Cooper added as a caveat, “but the pictures are sickening.” In support of this visual evidence, Cooper went on to cite a NYT article that quoted the testimony of a local photographer: “There were so many bodies I couldn’t even photograph.”
After Cooper’s opening, Clarissa Ward came on to reinforce the key point: scale as evidence of an Israeli strike. Cosplaying as a ballistics analyst, Ward loosened the reins of her imagination:
I will say, just based on seeing these rocket attacks many times over the years, that they don’t usually have an impact like that in terms of the size of the blast, in terms of the scale of the death toll, and the scope of the damage. It’s also not the first time, it’s important to add, that we’ve seen the IDF categorically deny something categorically before being forced to kind of do an about face after an extensive investigation.
This message permeated CNN’s coverage. Jake Tapper dismissed Israel’s claim that the cause of the blast was a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket: “that is a lot of damage for one rocket.” It could only be Israel. It had to be. The BBC’s Jon Donnison made the point explicitly: “It is hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli air strike, or several air strikes.” He added, “when we’ve seen rockets being fired out of Gaza, we never see explosions of that scale.”
The “terrible scale” required a commensurate death toll, which is why the Western media generally jumped on the implausible figure of 500 dead that was quickly made available by Palestinian sources. Alternatively, they ran with the elastic, and potentially expandable, “hundreds,” also provided by the Gaza health ministry. “No figure could be confirmed independently,” the NYT noted, before adding, “but images from the hospital … and witness accounts made clear that it was high.”
The NYT stuck with the “hundreds” figure, though limiting it to “100 to 300 people.” To back up this estimate, the NYT’s Julian Barnes cited anonymous U.S. officials and an “unclassified assessment drafted by U.S. intelligence agencies.” These officials emphasized, however, that even if the estimate “is revised downward further … the blast had still caused a significant loss of life.” True, the assessment agreed that “Israel Probably Did Not Bomb Gaza Strip Hospital,” but, Barnes added, it “highlights how much U.S. officials still do not know about the blast at the hospital, what exactly caused it and how many lives were lost there.” You know, Barnes explained, the assessment was “full of standard caveats that their understanding of events may change.” Maybe the Biden administration could still use this to push Israel to accept a ceasefire.
By the following morning, it was irrelevant that the hospital was only lightly damaged, that there weren’t thousands of Gazans sheltering in place or hundreds of dead, and that there was no rubble entrapping dozens more. And so, as the president arrived in Israel, CNN’s Becky Anderson gave this highly emotive performance:
[G]iven what we saw [sic] local time here at 7 o’clock yesterday, the enormous [emphasis hers] loss of life by an explosion at the hospital in Gaza. The IDF absolutely, 100% describing that as an attack by Islamic Jihad. Hamas absolutely determined that that strike was caused by an air strike from the Israelis. So as that sort of back and forth goes on, clearly, what we see is the fallout from that, which, you know, Gaza had already been described as nigh on a catastrophe, and now you see [sic] this incredible [emphasis hers] loss of life, at a hospital, I mean this is just, you know, the sort of thing that nobody hoped to see, and what is unfolding on the ground is very, very devastating.
Had it been merely an Islamic Jihad rocket that fell short, the chances of it eliciting this kind of outrage are nil. The only way the media story could potentially have an impact on U.S. policy is if it were an Israeli strike targeting a hospital and killing hundreds of innocent Palestinians.
Hence, once the evidence became clear on Oct. 18, CNN had to adjust and explain that, actually, it didn’t matter who was responsible. “In the eyes of the international community maybe this does make a difference. But in the eyes of the streets, no,” opined Erin Burnett. Burnett then turned to her colleague Clarissa Ward in Ashkelon for comment. Ward repeated verbatim the narrative from the previous night without any concern for how little sense it now made. What mattered was the desired political effect. “The focus now,” Ward commented, “is very much on the reaction and the fact that for many Arab states, this is now becoming a national security issue in their own countries because people are horrified. People are angry.” And so, Burnett and Ward doubled down, the former declaring the hospital blast “a huge inflection,” and the latter concurring that “there’s no question this feels like a watershed moment.” That was the hope, at least.
Hamas’ Al-Ahli Hospital information operation succeeded in enlisting the cooperation of Western media organizations. By the time the evidence became clear, the damage had been done, both in the Middle East and in the West, where Hamas supporters rallied in the streets. Although President Biden accepted Israel’s evidence that proved it was not responsible, the pressure at home was such that Biden had to apologize to Muslim American leaders for questioning the figures provided by the Hamas health ministry.
Curiously, the campaign in the U.S. to declare Pallywood a “false narrative” intensified after the Al-Ahli op was exposed. Just this week, NPR ran a segment (citing the same fact-checker used by Rolling Stone) on the Pallywood “pejorative.” The timing dovetails with the White House’s Islamophobia initiative, which provided the necessary framework for the campaign: The Pallywood conspiracy theory is a form of hate speech that endangers Muslim lives in America, and is a manifestation of Islamophobia. There is no place for it in America.
Richard Landes, a historian living in Jerusalem, is chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars and a Senior Fellow at ISGAP. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience and Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism and Global Jihad. He’s at Richard-Landes.com and on X @richard_landes.